Cool Season Vegetable Gardening

Fall and Winter Greens & Reds & More

Frost covered vegetables
Gert Tabak The Netherlands/Photolibrary/Getty Images

When the trees begin to show fall colors, your garden can too. Unless you live in a mild winter climate, you may not have thought about planting for a fall harvest that can continue even into the winter.

There's Always Room Somewhere in the Garden

We’re not talking about setting aside a large area for fall. Although if you have that much space to spare, that’s fine. All you need is some room amidst existing plants.

Consider using available space in your flower garden or mixed border; fill in areas with edibles as you remove tired-looking annuals or prune back perennials. Of course, there is always some room in the vegetable or herb garden.

For fall harvests you can start everything from seed sown directly in the garden. In spring, you can usually find a plethora of starts—cell packs or small potted plants at local nurseries, garden centers, and home stores. In summer, you won’t find starts; you have to rely on seed you purchased.

Great Greens

Do you enjoy salad and other greens fresh from the garden? In season, they are fabulous, especially cut-and-come-again greens like leaf lettuces, arugula, mustard, and others. Yet have you seen the price of mixed greens—often called mesclun—at the grocery store lately? For what you would pay for two weeks worth of salad greens for a family of four, you can buy more than enough seed to keep you in salad all fall and well into winter.

Look for greens that you would normally plant in spring before the last frost date—those that can take some cold.

Since these are mostly “foliage plants,” look for those that add a dimension of color in addition to “leafy green” when selecting varieties to add to your garden. If you don’t segregate ornamentals from edibles, you will want the plants to add as much interest—leaf color, shape, size, and plant form—as possible.

Choose from among the many leaf lettuces, including these All-America Selections winners: ‘Red Sails’ (1985), ‘Buttercrunch’ (1963), ‘Ruby’ (1958), and ‘Salad Bowl’ (1952). Romaines can take the cold; try ‘Rouge d’Hiver’ and ‘Freckles’ for good color. Mix in some ‘Lollo Rossa,’ ‘Arctic King,’ ‘Winter Marvel,’ and ‘North Pole’ for an outstanding winter collection.

Mix it Up

Sow each type of seed separately, or create your own personal mesclun blend. You can mix all the seeds together in a bowl and then scatter them on bare soil—thicker than normal. Make an eighteen-inch-wide swath through a garden bed, or edge the path leading from the sidewalk to your front door. The greens will come up in a colorful carpet. By the time the plants are a few inches tall they will need thinning. Pull up plants at random for an instant salad of baby greens. There is plenty to share with neighbors who seem to sense when picking time starts—and invite them to come over and help themselves to fresh greens.

Since you will be planting in the heat of summer, sow the seed in a partly shaded spot, or provide shade with spun polyester cloth to keep them cooler. Mist lightly during the day to refresh the seedlings and young plants.

Otherwise, they require no different care than spring-sown seeds. Growing spinach in the spring can be a challenge, as it doesn’t like the heat. In fall, it is happy with the cooling weather. Be sure to avoid any varieties that are labeled “summer” spinach. As with the other plants for fall harvest, sow the seed in a partially shaded area to keep the soil from getting too warm.

To many, the flavor of kale—like Brussels sprouts—is enhanced by frost. For diversity of leaf shape, color (from deep green to blue), size, and crunch, choose several kale varieties. Finely curled red-leafed ‘Redbor Hybrid’, and bluish crinkle-leafed ‘Winterbor’ are amazingly hardy and can last through winter. ‘Lacinata’ holds its deep bluish-green leaves upright, while ‘Red Russian’ with a mauve tinge to the leaves, has a more open habit.

Swiss chard is a must-have. Forget about the plain green leaves you knew as a child. Grow ‘Bright Lights’ (1998 AAS winner) to delight your eyes as well as your palate. With ribs that run the gamut from silver to gold, orange, pink, red, and green, a stand of Swiss chard looks like stained glass with the early morning or late afternoon sun glimmering through it. It is so decorative in the garden you don’t have to eat it.

Add some pizzazz to your cool season vegetable garden with crops like nutty mache or corn salad, Oriental delights like mizuna and tatsoi, plum purple radishes.

Add Some Pizzazz

Other less common, yet more flavorful greens, add spice to the mix. Depending on your taste, include some piquant greens such as arugula and ‘Osaka Purple’ mustard greens. ‘Wrinkled Crinkled Crumpled’ cress is unique for its savoyed leaves. Broccoli raab, a sprouting broccoli, (also known by such names as raab, rapa, rapini, and spring broccoli) is sumptuous stir-fried in olive oil and garlic, served on pasta.

Other greens add interesting form and color, with their own unique flavors. Mache, Valerianella locusta) also known as corn salad, has a sweet, nutty flavor. Endive and radicchio have a slightly bitter taste. Curly endives, such as ‘Tres Fin,’ have finely dissected, curly leaves. Oriental greens round out the medley. From mizuna to tatsoi, pac choi, bok choy, and komatsuna and their cultivars, there is an assortment of new, vitamin-filled greens to try.

Root for Other Veggies

Radishes grow quickly and add a nice crunch to any dish. ‘Easter Egg II’ is a mixture of white, plum purple, cherry red, and rosy pink skinned radishes. Sow seeds every five to seven days for an extended harvest.

Small carrots, such as one-half-inch, round ‘Thumbelina’ (1992 AAS winner) or ‘Mokum’, which is one of the best-tasting carrots to pull at “baby” stage, deserve some space. If the temperatures remain cold, cover the plants with at least six inches of natural mulch such as hay, so you can harvest fresh carrots well into winter.

Even if you don’t grow ‘Bull’s Blood’ beet for the tasty root—excellent harvested when only two to three inches—plant it for the deep, vibrant red leaves. Picked young, they are a superlative addition to a salad; when they are larger, cook the leaves as you would spinach, or use them in a stir-fry.

Pansy Party

Pansies are such a cheerful addition to any garden. Much has been written about their versatility as a fall flower, and bedding plants are readily available in nurseries for fall planting. However, the selection from seed is much more diverse—and easy to grow. The unexpected bonus of fall pansies: keep deadheading the plants. Even in Zone 5, each time the snow melts there are the pansies ready to burst into flower. AAS winners ‘Maxim Marina’ (1991) and ‘Ultima Morpho’ (2002) are among the most colorful.

Harvest Time

Whether you are gathering lettuce, chard, spinach, kale, chicory, or other greens, you can get the most out of these leafy plants by picking only as many outer leaves as you will use for the next meal. As long as the temperatures stay at least ten to fifteen degrees above freezing during the day, the plants will continue to produce new leaves at the center of the plant. Instead of cutting and bringing in the entire plant, harvesting a few leaves at a time can extend the harvest through winter right into early spring—if the weather cooperates (or you have a cold frame.)

Of the root vegetables, only radishes need to be pulled up at maturity when their flavor and texture are at their peak. The chosen selections of the others—carrots, turnips, and beets—are equally good harvested young or at maturity.

Enjoy the wide selection of easy-to-grow fall edibles that deliver great taste and a range of colors to enhance nutritious meals.

Don't overlook colorful lettuces and Brussels sprouts so beautiful even the kids will eat them.